Over the past few years, high-ranking Republicans have taken refuge in “off the record." On that cushy footing, they have often expressed misgivings about the president’s fitness for office, his unhinged comments, the rare policy disagreement, etc. As former GOP congressman David Jolly wrote a year ago, “Few Republican officials today are willing to openly criticize the president, even if they have deeply held reservations about Trump’s ability to govern. They instead keep their laments private, their panic measured and their comments off the record.”
In his new book, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America,” CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta examines times when Republican lawmakers could well have spoken up against President Trump’s irresponsible behavior.
One occasion was Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists in August 2017 felt sufficient cultural cover to march on the campus of the University of Virginia bearing tiki torches and belting out racist chants. Asked about the event, Trump insisted there were “very fine people, on both sides." As Trump tried to clean up the obvious offense, “most Republicans outside the administration, nearly united in their cowardice, stood firm in their refusal to confront the president,” writes Acosta. “This sad chapter only reinforced the recognition that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, had become Trump’s latest real estate acquisition.”
Later that year, Trump endorsed Roy Moore in a special Senate election in Alabama, even though The Post had reported that Moore, decades ago when serving as an assistant district attorney, “initiated” a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. As Acosta notes, GOP establishment types abandoned Moore, but Trump wasn’t fazed: “We need a Republican in the Senate, we need Roy Moore,” Trump said at a rally in Pensacola, Fla.
Even after Moore lost the race, Trump lost little altitude among his fellow Republicans. Heck, they all collaborated on a huge tax cut!
During both of these episodes, newspaper columns, segments on CNN and MSNBC, and Twitter threads all condemned Trump for endorsing hatred and an alleged sexual molester. And that’s just the point, writes Acosta:
In nearly all the episodes of Republican inaction, a familiar pattern would emerge: Trump would take things too far, and much of the GOP would do little or nothing to challenge his behavior. That dynamic is principally why the press found itself, over and over, in Trump’s crosshairs. GOP members of Congress had largely given up calling the president out on his behavior, which meant that task fell to us reporters.
In August 2018, Acosta famously clashed with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders over her boss’s claim that the media is the “enemy of the people.” “It would be a good thing if you were to state right here, at this briefing, that the press—the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier—are not the enemy of the people,” Acosta said. “I think we deserve that.”
Imagine if Mitch McConnell had been voicing the same objections.